Pro-democracy protests have erupted in Cuba – perhaps the biggest in three decades – and presented a fresh and major challenge to the nation’s Communist rulers and its president.
Reports from Havana, Santiago and other major cities in Cuba suggest the demonstrations are the most significant since the early 1990s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent end of its support to the island.
As a result of the end of that support to Cuba from Moscow, the average Cuban saw their daily intake of calories fall from 2,600 calories a day in the 1980s, to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993.
In addition to triggering huge protests in 1994, the end of support from the Soviet Union forced Cuba to develop its own self sufficiency in food production, something it helped secure in part by creating organic food that did not include oil-based fertiliser from Moscow. It also developed a network of small plots in tiny spaces throughout cities.
Yet that was three decades ago, so what is causing the protests now?
No Fidel or Raul:
For the first time in six decades, neither Fidel Castro, who died in. 2016, or his brother Raul, are running the country of 11m people. Raul Castro, 90, announced in April he was standing down as First Secretary of the Communist Party, and that role was filled by Miguel Diaz-Canel, who had been appointed president in 2018, and now holds both roles.
Perhaps no longer constrained by the personal loyalty to the Castros that many Cubans felt, it is Diaz-Canel’s resignation people have been calling for in the protests across the nation.
He has responded by blaming the protests on US “economic asphyxiation” and social media campaigns by a minority of “counter-revolutionaries”.
“In the last few weeks the campaign against the Cuban revolution has increased in social media, drawing on the problems and shortages we are living,” Diaz-Canel, 61, said in a televised address
The US first imposed sanctions against Cuba in 1958, and they have been expanded or lessened over the years, as relations have shifted, albeit modestly.
At the end of 2014, the two countries looked to end decades of diplomatic stand-off and established embassies in each other’s capital cities. Before, the offices had still been there, but were designated as “interests” sections, that operated technically from the facilities of the Swiss government.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests,” Barack Obama said from the White House. “These changes will begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”
Later he added: “Todos somos Americanos”, or “We are all Americans.”
The thaw made it easier for Cubans to visit their relatives in the US and vice versa. It also lessened some banking restrictions.
Yet, those sanctions were reimposed by Donald Trump, delivering a major economic blow to Cuba. They remain in place, and it is unclear what plan Joe Biden has for Cuba, as he confronts other pressing issues.
On 23 June, 184 counties voted in the UN to end the US embargo on Cuba. The US voted against the move. It was the 29th time the UN introduced a resolution to end the embargo on Cuba, and each time the US has voted against ending the sanctions. On Monday, Mr Biden called the protests a “clarion call for freedom”.
“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” he added.
One of the reasons for the protests appears to have been anger over the nation’s inability to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The BBC said that Cuba, whose doctors have often been dispatched around the world as part of a policy of “health diplomacy”, had kept the Covid-19 pandemic under control in 2020.
Yet in recent weeks there has been a new spike in cases. On Sunday, the island reported 6,750 cases and 31 deaths, although many opposition groups said the true figures may be higher.
The island has begun a mass vaccination campaign, with 1.7 million of its 11m million residents vaccinated to date and twice that many have received at least one shot in the three-shot process. It is the first country in Latin America to develop its own vaccine.
‘I’m tired of being hungry’:
The coming together of various factors – including the pandemic and the US bite of US sanctions – has left Cuba in its toughest economic crisis in years.
Tourism, a mainstay for certain industries, was mothballed during the year-long pandemic, robbing it of vital foreign currency.
The hardships have also led to a large number of Cubans leaving the country, and trying to enter the US, after first passing through Central America.
The New York Times said social media is full of Cuban protesters talking about the lack of electricity and basic supplies.
“I took to the streets because I’m tired of being hungry,” said Sara Naranjo, in a video shared on Twitter. “I don’t have water, I don’t have anything. You get bored, you get tired, we are going crazy.”
People know what is going on:
One of the impacts of the loosening of government restrictions when relations improved between the US and Cuba, was to make it easier for ordinary Cubans to access the internet.
Numerous reports said many if the people joining the protests over the weekend, did so after reading about what was going on via social media.
A major change came two years ago, when Cubans started being able to access the Internet via their mobile phones.
The AFP news agency estimated that more than a third of all Cubans – some 4.2 million people – can surf the web from their smartphones.
Additional reporting by Reuters